Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
Nir Rosen is right: the Afghan surge will end badly; and surely President Obama is too knowledgeable to imagine it could end any differently. One of the few saving graces about the way he announced his decision to send to Afghanistan an additional 30,000 troops—nearly 50 times the size of the ill-fated Light Brigade under Lord Cardigan that fought at Balaclava, in 1854—is that he studiously avoided using the word “victory” in the mission-defining speech he made to the nation on December 1.
Maybe the 30,000, and their 65,000 already-deployed comrades, will fare better than Lord Cardigan’s 600-odd. Let’s sincerely hope so.
For several years, I have been watching NATO’s bizarre, geography-defying venture in Afghanistan through the lens of world politics. Who, in NATO headquarters in Brussels, imagined that this alliance of Western nations could ever be the ideal tool with which to “pacify” and even, heaven forbid, “nation-build” in the very distant and landlocked mountain fastnesses of Afghanistan?
The logistics of deploying and sustaining a foreign fighting force in Afghanistan—let alone having them actually fight and win any, even minor, military campaigns—are mind-boggling. Pentagon experts recently told the House Appropriations Subcommitte on Defense that the cost of delivering gasoline to the forward bases in Afghanistan averages $400 per gallon. That is because most gas must be shipped in via Pakistan’s Arabian Sea ports and trucked hundreds of miles through some of Pakistan’s most lawless areas before it reaches the equally lawless mountains of Afghanistan. In early December 2008, hundreds of NATO- and U.S.-led coalition vehicles were reportedly torched or looted by militants in northwestern Pakistan in one two-week period, leading the local contractors who were doing the hauling to halt their activities for a few days. One Pakistani trucking executive told The Daily Telegraph’s Isambard Wilkinson that the Taliban was taking 30 percent of the goods from the hijacked trucks “while 30 percent [was] shared by the drivers and transporters.”
That logistical crisis pushed NATO’s people to accelerate their negotiations on a new supply route—Russian Railways, through Russia and its former satellites. One can imagine the chuckles with which this news must have been greeted by survivors of Moscow’s own military (mis)adventure in Afghanistan.
But military materiel is not the only kind of freight that can be carried on railroads, and China, which shares a short (but very mountainous) border with Afghanistan, has its own plans for the country. They include a $3.5 billion deal, also concluded in 2008, to develop Afghanistan’s Aynak copper field and to construct an associated north-south railroad that will be Afghanistan’s first-ever nation-spanning railroad. (It will also, if it is ever completed, connect the far western reaches of China’s own railroad system—through Afghanistan, Pakistan, and a couple of other Central Asian ’stans—directly to the Arabian Sea. How convenient.)
Obama and his advisors seem to have concluded that, from the U.S. political point of view, an exit strategy must start with a troop surge.
Sometimes I think that the Chinese Communist Party’s planners must be completely bemused to see so much of the U.S. political elite cheering on a force-escalation plan in Afghanistan—a plan that (a) is doomed to make, at best, little military difference or, at worst, risk catastrophe for U.S. forces, while (b) costing the U.S. taxpayer unbelievable amounts of money, and (c) further degrading the readiness and capabilities of the once-mighty American military with every week that the engagement continues.
So why has Barack Obama made what looks like such a counterproductive decision? Here, Rosen and I may disagree. His analysis omits what I think is central to the answer: domestic politics. Obama and his advisors seem to have concluded—with their prime reference point being the latter years of the Bush administration’s experience in Iraq—that from the U.S.-political point of view, an exit strategy must start with a troop surge.
It was George Bush, remember, who in November 2008 signed the agreement with the Maliki government in Iraq that committed the United States to a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. Bush was able to “get away with” that necessary but far-from-glamorous outcome in Iraq precisely because he and his people (including current Defense Secretary Robert Gates) had the swagger of the 2007 Surge behind them.
The United States’s long-drawn-out withdrawal from Iraq has not been going well for the Iraqi people. But from the U.S.-political viewpoint, it has been remarkably successful, mainly because nobody in the United States is much concerned about Iraq any more. The Bush-Gates decision to withdraw from the country let the air out of all those heated, Iraq-focused debates that once dominated the American national discourse. The whole sordid episode of our country’s involvement in (or more accurately, destruction of) Iraq’s political system now sits somewhere between too embarrassing and too distasteful for most Americans to dwell on.
I fear, though, that leaving Afghanistan, just like staying there, will prove to be vastly more complicated than leaving Iraq. Not least because whenever Obama really starts drawing down in Afghanistan—it has to be by the fall of 2012, doesn’t it?—our country will be that much weaker in every way than it was when the Bush-initiated withdrawal from Iraq began last year. But that is not all. Although Afghanistan constitutes nothing like the geostrategic prize that an intact Iraq once represented, it is nonethelesss located at a key intersection of competing world powers. Avoiding a conflagration in that whole portion of Central Asia, including nuclear-armed Pakistan, will require a very new kind of entente between “the West” and “the rest.” If leaders on both sides of that divide can act in an astute and visionary way—a very big caveat—the result might be better for all the world’s peoples than a continuation of Western dominance could ever be.
In the meantime, Afghanistan’s 28 million people will continue to bear the primary costs of the ongoing war. That is particularly tragic, since we know the political outcome, after this Surge 2.0 is completed, will not be much different from what wise statecraft could have obtained today.
Helena Cobban blogs at JustWorldNews.org. Her 1985 book The Making of Modern Lebanon was named to Choice magazine's list of Outstanding Academic Books. She is president of the nonprofit Just World Educational.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.
Support us with a donation this giving season.
Robin D. G. Kelley on the midterm elections.
Austerity is not the only way to save our overextended planet. A simpler life might be both more pleasurable and more equal.
We must reject the legal liberalism that attempts to cordon off constitutional questions from democratic politics.
The United States ranked first on health security; then came COVID-19. In place of technocratic hubris, we need robust new forms of democratic humility.